Mon­tana coal mine rul­ing could trig­ger lay­offs

Own­ers ask fed­eral court to re­verse judge’s or­der

Las Vegas Review-Journal (Sunday) - - THE WEST - By Matthew Brown

BILLINGS, Mont. — The “clock is run­ning” on lay­offs at one of the largest un­der­ground coal mines in the United States, its own­ers said Fri­day, as they asked a fed­eral appeals court to re­verse a judge’s or­der that could bring some work at the mine to a halt later this month.

Sig­nal Peak En­ergy says as many as 30 work­ers from the Bull Moun­tain Mine could run out of work by the end of Oc­to­ber and 50 more work­ers by March un­der an Au­gust rul­ing from U.S. District Judge Don­ald Mol­loy.

Mol­loy sided with en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists who said that in ap­prov­ing an ex­pan­sion, the De­part­ment of In­te­rior’s Of­fice of Sur­face Min­ing had not ad­e­quately con­sid­ered how burn­ing the mine’s coal would con­trib­ute to cli­mate change.

With backing from Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion lawyers, Sig­nal Peak last month filed an emer­gency mo­tion for Mol­loy to re­con­sider and al­low lim­ited work to con­tinue.

The judge de­nied the re­quest this week and sched­uled an Oct. 31 hear­ing to ad­dress the com­pany’s ar­gu­ments for why work should con­tinue.

Sig­nal Peak spokesman Mike Dawson de­clined to say if such a hear­ing would be too late for work­ers whose jobs are said to be in peril. The com­pany’s ap­peal is be­fore the 9th U.S. Cir­cuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.

“The clock is run­ning, and we’re get­ting closer to be­ing forced to lay some peo­ple off. We do not want to,” Dawson said.

An­other 80 work­ers could run out of work by 2019, the com­pany has said.

In its ap­peal to the 9th Cir­cuit, at­tor­neys for the com­pany said Mol­loy should have con­sid­ered the ef­fect on the mine be­fore is­su­ing his in­junc­tion. They said its work­ers could stay on if Sig­nal Peak can con­duct prepara­tory work on the ex­pan­sion while the gov­ern­ment goes back and ad­dresses the prob­lems found in its ap­proval.

“On bal­ance, the dev­as­tat­ing and im­me­di­ate threats to real peo­ple’s liveli­hoods and to the mine far out­weigh any harms” from al­low­ing that pre­lim­i­nary work to con­tinue, Sig­nal Peak at­tor­ney John Martin wrote.

The Mon­tana En­vi­ron­men­tal In­for­ma­tion Cen­ter, which sued to stop the ex­pan­sion, op­poses any changes to Mol­loy’s orig­i­nal or­der. Mem­bers of the group con­tend that re­gard­less of their law­suit, Bull Moun­tain’s long-term prospects are dim and com­mu­ni­ties that rely on it should start plan­ning for when it’s gone.

The mine north of Billings em­ploys about 250 work­ers and ships 95 per­cent of its fuel to cus­tomers in Asia, ac­cord­ing to court fil­ings. It’s seek­ing to ex­pand onto a 176-mil­lion ton coal re­serve be­neath land ad­ja­cent to the mine.

In ap­prov­ing the ex­pan­sion, fed­eral min­ing of­fi­cials had claimed there would be no ad­di­tional en­vi­ron­men­tal ef­fects from burn­ing more coal from Bull Moun­tain.

Mol­loy re­jected that ar­gu­ment and said of­fi­cials had in­flated the mine’s eco­nomic ben­e­fits in or­der to jus­tify the ex­pan­sion’s ap­proval.

Janie Os­borne The As­so­ci­ated Press

A mine em­ployee stands in the en­try of Sig­nal Peak En­ergy’s Bull Moun­tain mine in Roundup, Mont. Sig­nal Peak is ask­ing a fed­eral ap­pel­late court to in­ter­vene after a judge halted a planned ex­pan­sion.

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